When I was a child, I am pretty sure none of the adults I knew had heard of emotional literacy – in word form or as a general concept. I probably had quite a standard 70s upbringing – a little higher on criticism and lower on warmth than I like to think my kids are getting. I certainly wasn’t helped to deal with my emotions. My mum was stoical. I never saw her cry. I did see her get irritated a lot though. Her irritation seemed to mostly manifest in telling us off frequently and criticising us. My dad on the other hand was a very sensitive man – but only to himself, not others, not exactly. He spent most of the time confused by his emotions with intermittent outbursts of anger. I never remember my parents starting a sentence with, ‘I feel….’ or sitting us down to talk through how we were feeling.
And what about school? Not much help there either. I was quite a naughty and unruly child. I was shouted at a lot and hit occasionally by my teachers and headteacher. Obviously neither hitting nor shouting were particularly emotionally nurturing. I remember being expected to just shut up and cope with everything. Emotions were not acknowledged and there were clear unwritten rules about them having no significance and it being futile even trying to express them. Crying seemed to be making a fuss that step too far and could evoke even more nasty responses from the adults.
No I am pretty sure emotional literacy did not appear in any conscious realm throughout my childhood. I have heard adults say, ‘but it did us no harm,’ but I question that. It takes a degree of self-awareness to see what damage it did and I have spent a couple of decades remedying that damage quite effectively in ways I suspect my grandparents would ridicule! No I would argue that emotional illiteracy is damaging. After all an emotionally illiterate person:
• bottles up their feelings (and then will occasionally explode). My dad.
• tends to blame others for their own emotions. My mum.
• struggles to relate the cause of an emotion to its effect (e.g. the person who tells their child off because they were actually frustrated by what happened at work). My mum and my dad.
• might behave aggressively or defensively when experiencing negative emotions. My dad.
• lacks empathy. Both again.
So as schools eventually became more emotionally savvy, stopped hitting children (!), acknowledged damaging things like bullying and prejudice and implemented the SEAL curriculum, PSHE and started to develop pupils’ wellbeing programmes, I was 100% behind this shift. I strongly believe emotional literacy is a really positive thing. After all a person who is emotionally literate is:
• consciously aware of the feelings they are experiencing,
• understands what caused the way they are feeling,
• knows the most effective way to express and process this feeling,
• can ‘read’ other people’s emotions successfully and adjust their responses accordingly
• likely to be able to build and maintain effective relationships.
A world full of emotionally literate people would be a wonderful place! However, there is still some way to go. Us Brits aren’t known for huge demonstrations of emotions are we? We’re not very good at letting emotions just flow. And yet healthy emotions do just that – flow. They arrive, we process them effectively and then they leave. Feeling comfortable around emotions so that they can be fully acknowledged, helps them to flow and this is just one part of being emotionally literate. It’s a paradox that the most emotionally resilient are those who readily express how they are feeling and yet we are taught to see shows of emotion other than anger as weak.
Emotions are unquestionably an integral part of being human. We have an emotional response (however mild) to pretty much everything we do but we don’t always consciously acknowledge them. Strong emotions can be overwhelming. Anger can consume us and we are unlikely to function well. Other emotions can consume us too and sometimes make us behave quite ineffectively or ridiculously. Emotions and how they are managed therefore can be crucial to an individual’s capacity for happiness, wellbeing and their ability to function effectively.
So if we do start to understand the importance of emotional literacy, what can parents/carers and teachers do to enhance emotional literacy? First and foremost – be a role model. Find opportunities to express your feelings and what caused them. It will feel counter-culture at first but go on – give it a go. Also make it clear that whatever you are feeling, you realise you have a choice about how you will behave in response to that feeling. Point out that some of the behaviours you choose can be helpful in reducing a negative emotion and help to get you back into a more resourceful state. For example – you always take deep breaths when you are angry. Also use a variety of words to describe different emotions so that children develop a good vocabulary for expressing how they feel. If you can’t express yourself – then you are more likely to bottle things up!
Secondly, ask children to report how different situations make them feel. If a child struggles to express themselves use tools like ‘emotion graphs’ which plot positive and negative emotions during the course of a day or for younger children, emotion faces for them to point to express how they felt at different times of the day. If a child says they are feeling a particular way – always acknowledge it and take it seriously. Even if their response seems ridiculous to us, remember it is very real for them. Ignoring emotions teaches children to suppress them which leaves the feeling un-processed. (Unprocessed feelings can mean a child will always feel the same emotion when they next face the same or a similar situation. That situation therefore becomes an automatic trigger for that emotion.)
Thirdly, use stories, TV programmes and books and speculate about how characters in them are probably feeling. Use picture books to help children ‘read’ the emotions in others. Picture books can be great for prompting discussions about emotions. I wrote How are you feeling today? with this in mind. This book not only gives children a selection of different emotions to consider, it also delivers suggestions for what a child could do when they are feeling each emotion. This helps children to understand that there is always a choice about what you can do when you are feeling a particular way. This is a very key foundation to healthy emotional literacy.
And do you know what; I think I could even convince my mum and dad that this stuff was important.
How are you feeling today? is a delightful book that parents and children can use as a way of exploring every day emotions and talking about different ways of coping with them. It provides children with several straightforward, entertaining and appropriate interactive ideas to help them deal with a selection of significant emotions.
Molly Potter is a teacher in a short-stay school with children that have been or are at risk of being excluded from mainstream schools – putting much of her PSHE expertise into practice. Her past experience includes teaching science and PSHE and delivering support and training in the development of Sex and Relationship Education programmes in primary schools.